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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Seeing Jesus

This month’s print edition of The United Church Observer contains an article in the “My View” section by a retired minister named Wayne Hilliker. In the article, entitled “Intelligent Faith”, he says “our pews and our pulpits contain increasing numbers of people who find less and less meaning in the traditional doctrinal language of the church. The end result is that many find themselves believing in less and less. On the other hand, they also testify that what they do believe, they believe with greater and greater conviction. The theological challenge in such a climate is discovering the language that best expresses the core convictions that lie at the heart of the Christian story.”

I think Hilliker is arguing for preaching that expresses theological ideas in precise language, with the goal of stimulating the intellect- giving the mind something to chew on. I get this idea from the way he uses the words “belief” and believing. I think you could take out the word “belief”, and replace it with “idea”, and take out “believing”, and replace it with the word “agreeing”.

I appreciate the way that belief is defined in the glossary to Karen Armstrong’s book “The Case for God”. She says, “ Originally the Middle English verb bileven meant “to love; to prize; to hold dear”; and the noun bileve meant”loyalty; trust; commitment; engagement.” It was related to the German liebe (”beloved”) and the Latin libido (“desire.”) In the English versions of the Bible, the translators used these words to render the Greek pistis;pisteuo; and the Latin fides; credo. Thus “belief” became the equivalent of “faith”. But “belief” began to change its meaning during the late seventeenth century. It started to be used of an intellectual assent to a particular proposition, teaching, opinion, or doctrine. It was used in this modern sense first by philosophers and scientists, and the new usage did not become common in religious contexts until the nineteenth century."

I pay attention to the words I use in a sermon, especially the words that come with a lot of doctrinal or pietistic baggage. My own goal is not necessarily to be precise. I want to appeal to more than the intellect. I strive for expressions that may be vague, but which leave room for the play of spiritual imagination.

This past Sunday I re-told the story of the miraculous catch of fish, which Luke records early in the chronicle of Jesus’ adventures with the disciples. I held it beside the version from John, which is placed near the end of the gospel, and appears as a resurrection story. In Luke it is a story about disciples being called to follow Jesus. In John it is a story that offers the reassurance that somehow, the resurrected Jesus was still with them, even after his physical death. I also made reference to another story from Luke, in which Jesus and a group of disciples are crossing the lake, and a storm comes up that threatens to swamp the boat.

Jesus, who was sleeping, wakes up, and rebukes the storm, and it is calmed, and the waves subside. All the gospels were written long after the earthly life and death of Jesus. We can hardly help but read them with awareness of the Easter story. In a sense, every gospel story is a resurrection story. Does Jesus waking from sleep remind us of his resurrection?

One of the causes of hope we can draw from these stories is that like the disciples, we are not alone when we face the storms of life. My “short-hand” way of saying this in the sermon was to say that “Jesus was with” the disciples, and that “Jesus is with” us as well.

But what does it mean to talk about Jesus being with the disciples, or us, after his physical death? If I was going to “unpack” the baggage that comes with that phrase, I would end up saying something like this:

Through his very presence, as well as his words and actions, those who met Jesus saw/experienced/felt/knew the presence of the holy, the divine- perhaps something like what happened to Moses at the burning bush. Once they had been introduced to this divine energy/presence/light/love, their own minds/hearts/spirits were changed, and part of the transformation was that they became more attuned to seeing the divine, even in the absence of Jesus’ physical body.

Those in the mystical branch of the Christian faith have long been telling more mainstream believers that it is possible to have present-day experiences of “the Risen Christ”.